WILD BOAR REPRODUCE QUICKLY, RELENTLESSLY... THE RESULT OF THIS PRODIGIOUS PRODUCTIVITY IS THE PRACTICAL IMPOSSIBILITY OF EVER ERADICATING THEM
Among the major concerns is the fact that wild pigs transmit diseases and parasites to domestic hogs, other livestock and humans. While it is unlikely wild boar pose much risk to contaminating large-scale commercial hog operations with their closed-loop supply chains, disease transfer between feral wild boar, livestock, wildlife and humans is a real concern. Canada’s wild boar carry several diseases risky to human health that are transmitted through contaminated vegetable crops, eating wild boar meat or direct contact. These include trichinella, influenza and hepatitis E. Disease threats to other livestock include pseudorabies, swine brucellosis and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus, which are spread by contamination from bodily fluids. Wild boar sharing feed and crops make it likely that it will affect small herds.
According to the principles of terrestrial invasion by new species, first a small population will establish. And then nearby a few more. With early detection, they’re easy to eradicate. But as the number of different and independent population centres grows, the possibility of eradication decreases. Eventually, the best hope is to limit the effects of the invader. This is where Saskatchewan finds itself: almost past the point of no return, eradication will be extremely difficult. Targeted control measures will slow wild population growth, but since feral pigs reproduce so prolifically, killing a few animals has no appreciable effect on the larger population.
Effective management and control starts with good information. Ruth Kost, a PHD student at the University of Saskatchewan, is building a baseline map of confirmed boar occurrences to determine their spread and to support management efforts. Wild boar observations, hunter kills and trail cam photos are all useful data. “My research is looking at the distribution of wild boar across Canada. As it is on such a broad scale, common wildlife monitoring techniques aren’t feasible. I am using local and expert knowledge to collect data,” Kost says.
“As far as I am aware, this is the only research on wild boar distribution in Canada and will provide a baseline map of wild boar distribution for future research. This map will provide insight into current wild boar locations, as well as create a baseline against which potential future range expansion can be compared.”
To achieve even a modest population reduction of wild boar in Saskatchewan will require a highly aggressive, coordinated and well-monitored approach. In a program run by the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities until 2015, the provincial government funded a system to dispatch hired sharpshooters to problem areas. Since then, to reduce insurance payouts for damaged crops and livestock loss, the Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corporation (SCIC) has been operating a feral wild boar control program. Within the first few months of 2017, hunt teams killed 85 pigs. That number is expected to rise this fall by using snares — a cost-effective way to catch more pigs.
The control program is by necessity a cumbersome process. Landowners report wild boar damage or sightings on their land to SCIC. Darby Warner, executive director at SCIC, says that on average the phones ring five to 10 times per year with wild boar-related calls. Crop insurance adjusters are trained to identify pig signs and damage. Each call is investigated, and if it’s identified as wild boar, one of three hunt teams is mobilized. First the team leader “ground truths” the site, looking for boar trails and nests. A boar’s unique tracks are easiest to spot in the snow and mud. Reconnaissance may also be conducted with airplanes. Once the team leader identifies the number of pigs in a sounder (grouping), the team devises a plan to kill the entire sounder. According to Brook, killing anything less than 100 per cent of the group means that attempt was a total failure. Boar are intelligent, so those that escape scatter and are now educated that humans equal trouble.
While the hunt teams are effective at removing boar from an area, it is an expensive and time-consuming job. Teams must wait for incoming reports, plan, mobilize and execute their plans. Once a group of problem pigs is eliminated, the team will stand down until they are called out again. While the SCIC spearheads the hunt teams, they work with the province’s Ministry of the Environment, says Warner. Wildlife specialists and conservation officers give guidance on alternative control measures.
The control program recently started trying other ways to reduce the population. For instance, trappers have begun using snares to capture wild boar. Creatures of habit, wild boar develop pathways from bedding to feeding areas, using the same trail until they move on to another
site — ideal for catching them in steel cable snares. Because only one trapper is required to snare pigs, the cost is much lower than using an eradication team, and snares can be an effective way of capturing shy and elusive pigs.
Another tactic is using a sterilized wild boar to locate other wild pigs in an area. A captured boar is outfitted with a Gps-tracking collar, from which coordinates are transmitted to the hunt team. Once the collared pig gives up his new comrades’ position, the hunt team moves in, killing all the pigs, leaving only the collared one. Nicknamed the “Judas pig” because he betrays his friends, the lonely collared boar leaves in search of more pigs. This technique is showing real promise and has been used with good success in areas with sizable pockets of wild hogs.
Live group traps have been used effectively in the United States. The trick is to capture all the boar in a sounder. If pigs escape from the live traps or are split from their group, they will become trapshy and that much harder to capture. The Saskatchewan hunt teams use video surveillance in conjunction with live traps. By waiting for all the boar to enter the trap and then springing the door remotely, they have the best chance of capturing all the boar in a group.
Poisoning too has been used, though it is controversial because of the many concerns about inadvertently poisoning wildlife. (Ironically, sodium nitrite, the curing agent for bacon and ham, is used as an effective poison in some areas.)
An obvious response to a growing problem would seem to be engaging the province’s large community of active recreational hunters in the eradication process. Hunters are interested both because of the challenge the wily hogs present and because of the quantity and quality of pork that result. Prior to June 2016, wild boar were classified as “dangerous stray” in Saskatchewan meaning any potential hunters were required to obtain permission from landowners and from rural municipalities to shoot wild boar. Because, as Environment Minister Herb Cox said, “free-ranging or feral wild boar have the potential to become a serious provincial problem,” amendments were made to both the provincial Wildlife Act and the Stray Animals Act to allow Saskatchewan hunters to hunt wild boar without a licence. Some hunters see this as an opportunity to “fill the freezer.”
The concern among experts is that hunting ultimately does nothing to control the problem. In reality, evidence suggests uncoordinated hunting can make it more difficult to eradicate wild boar: wild pigs are intelligent animals that respond to hunting attempts by avoiding humans. As Ryan Brook has found in his studies, “shooting individual animals can actually make the problem worse by breaking up sounder groups and spreading feral pigs around to new areas.”
The province is taking steps to enforce stricter fencing requirements for farmed wild boar. Reducing the number of wild boar that escape is a major step toward preventing the establishment of new populations. This does nothing to address deliberate release of wild boar by frustrated farmers. Lorne Scott, a prominent wildlife conservationist and formerly the provincial minister of environment and resource management, says, “The best option to eliminate more captive animals being released into the wild is for the Province of Saskatchewan to shut down the industry… buying out the handful of remaining wild boar farms at fair market value.” Scott was president and later executive director of the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation when wild game farming (elk, deer, boar) was being proposed for agricultural diversity, something the federation vehemently opposed.
In the meantime, the uncanny ability of wild boar to breed and multiply will continue to wreak havoc in Saskatchewan’s ecosystems while their wrath spreads to neighbouring provinces. Although the way forward to eradication is not clear, for the sake of slowing the growth of the problem, vigilance is critical, and immediate action needed in response to feral wild boar as they are detected. In the meantime, these invaders will continue to lurk in the shadows.a
To learn more, visit Wildhogwatch on Facebook. It is operated by the Wildlife Ecology and Community Engagement Lab at the University of Saskatchewan.